TRCH Mindgames

Film Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

28 February 19 words: Adam Wells

It might not have won any of the three Oscars it was nominated for, but we still loved Marielle Heller's new film...

Director: Marielle Heller

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells

Running time: 106 mins

Outside of – and often even within – broad comedy, Melissa McCarthy has proven herself a talented performer, if one often frequently saddled with subpar material. Here, she is finally given a role to match her talents as the once successful biographer Lee Israel who, struggling for money in early nineties New York, resorts to forging the letters of prominent literary figures in order to turn a profit.

McCarthy’s Lee is impolite, irascible and often unpleasant to those around her, but always captivating to watch. As soon becomes clear, she is not just rude for the sake of being rude, but rather hardened to a world which has frequently rejected her, be it for her age, her sexuality, or even just for the books she wants to write. It would be completely understandable to describe her as sympathetic, were it not for the fact that she’d bristle at the very idea of being offered sympathy. As she’s rejected by the literary world, she rejects it back; one of the earliest scenes of the film shows us Lee at a party, drinking copiously, talking to one person, stealing someone else’s coat and leaving. Her only friend, and the one person she appears to have any respect for, is fellow destitute, hard-drinking author Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a mutual friendship which stems from Lee’s admiration of his propensity to alienate others.

This style of prioritising nuanced character work over directorial flash suits the film perfectly, emphasising the people at the centre of its story over the events they find themselves in

McCarthy and Grant – both rightly nominated for Oscars – have outstanding chemistry as the toxic, enabling duo drinking themselves into oblivion, with the latter giving possibly his best performance since Withnail & I. Grant retains the drunken depravity of the role that made his name, while cutting it with a twinkly roguish attitude, both of which ultimately mask a childish innocence – just watch his immediate, sincere apologies whenever he does something to upset Lee and what could have been something of a one-note character transforms into something far more layered. Can You Ever Forgive Me is at its best when focussing on the co-dependent relationship of the pair of individuals who have both been shunned from regular society, and their attempts to infiltrate and, failing that, disrupt it.

As such, both Jack and Lee stand out as characters who are neither accepted nor respected by their fellow authors but cannot live in the outside world, with Lee at one point completely shutting down her publisher’s suggestion that she make money through anything other than writing. Lee rejects the literary world, while simultaneously clinging to the fragments of approval it grants her, keeping her appearance on the New York Times bestseller list framed on the wall and tentatively reaching out to the one person she meets who has read and enjoys her books. She clearly brims with joy every time her writing style is praised, albeit under the impression it is that of another writer, finally seeing her work accepted on its own terms rather than just as a product.

This leads directly to one of the most affecting moments of the film, a scene depicting Lee on a not-quite-date with a bookseller who loves her work, which is soon hampered by her inability to hold a conversation without resorting to alcohol or self-deprecation. The scene, along with the rest of the film, is directed with lightness and subtlety by Marielle Heller, its impact not truly realised until it is over, when it hits like a ton of bricks. This style of prioritising nuanced character work over directorial flash suits the film perfectly, emphasising the people at the centre of its story over the events they find themselves in. Can You Ever Forgive Me does plenty of things well, as much a low-key crime thriller as it is a tribute to early nineties New York. When it works best however, it’s an empathetic character study of two lonely people who find friendship in a world which continually rejects them, and both do everything they can to support each other while keeping their own heads afloat.

Did you know? Despite playing an alcoholic in the film, Richard E. Grant is allergic to alcohol in real life. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 7 March